The Pacific herring—an oily, silvery, schooling fish—is rarely high on the list of marine animals people fret about.
But for the second straight year, the Canadian government has ignited a skirmish in British Columbia by moving to let fishing nets scoop up spawning herring, despite objections from scientists, Native people, and even commercial fishing groups.
"Last year it almost got to a war—locals were geared up to block fishing boats in port," said Tony Pitcher, a fisheries scientist with the University of British Columbia. "There were more police on the dock than there were local people."
This unusual battle is part of a global debate about the future of some of the oceans' most important fish: the abundant schools of sardines, squid, smelt, anchovies, and herring that serve as forage for larger animals in the sea.
Scientists like Pitcher argue that too few governments take into account the essential role these forage fish play in marine systems before deciding how many of them can be caught.
Herring, in particular, are energy-rich creatures that often swim close to shore and provide nutritious meals for everything from pelicans and sea ducks to humpback whales, sea lions, sharks, larger fish, and even bears.
"They are the Kobe beef of the forage-fish world," said Julia Parrish, a seabird ecologist with the University of Washington, in Seattle. "You have to eat four times as much of some other fish to get the same energy content."